Contemporary artists of all stripes are looking to the '80s for direction: from The Weeknd's pitch-perfect invocation of '80s radio hits to Mitski's glittering embrace of synth-pop drama, it's clear that the decade represents a deep vein of inspiration for both songwriters and producers.
Some artists' adoption of the '80s aesthetic may be skin-deep, simply another stylistic detour to tick off the list for an oversized, genre-hopping blockbuster album release. Many others, though, are driven by a fascination with the era that's anything but superficial, finding something of themselves in a period they could only experience second-hand.
Dominic Gore is one of those artists. Driven by a complex and deeply personal enchantment that goes beyond mere nostalgia or gear fetishism, he absorbed the decade's vibe through cultural osmosis, channelling The Pet Shop Boys, John Carpenter movies and the black humour of J. G. Ballard into music that reimagines '80s synth-pop through contemporary methods, forgoing Jupiter-8s and analogue tape in favour of Arturia plugins and Ableton Live.
“I love a lot of music from the ‘80s - I'm not quite sure why that is,” Gore tells us. “There's something about the songwriting. It's not about the synthesisers so much, even though I do love the sound of all that stuff… there's just something about the mood that's permeated into my consciousness.” We caught up with DC Gore ahead of All These Things' release to dig deeper into these influences and hear more about the creative process behind his densely layered, darkly comic new album for Domino Records.
Could you tell us a little about the background to this album?
“I was in a band before this. Basically, that band dissolved, and at the end of that time, just as I was really getting stuck into working on this album, lockdown hit. That changed everything in terms of the way that we could put stuff together. It then became very much a process of trying something a bit different. I didn't have access to a studio. So I started having to travel around a lot more, doing stuff remotely or doing it on my laptop, or going in for a day somewhere and then having to go and work on it somewhere else.
“It’s flipped my idea of how you make an album completely. Prior to that, it was very much like: are you going to the studio for two weeks, or six months, or two years? Depending on what album you're making, right? But this was like, actually, I can just do something in a completely different way to what I've been doing before.
“Working with people not in the same room really changed how I could do things. A lot of the musicians on the album recorded in different locations, or they've sent me things, or sometimes sent me hours of audio to sift through, and I’d just pick up the bits that I like. It's a very different process to sitting with someone and saying, ‘you play that’, or me sitting there and playing it, you know?”
Do you think that comes across in the music, that shift in your creative process?
“100%. Even though I make acoustic music, I work predominantly with loops, and I work predominantly with Ableton Live, though I’m using an MPC now. So, it’s constructed in the same way that you'd make more electronic music, but you're working with audio of acoustic instruments. So, it's not quite the same as using samples, but it has a similar thing, a chopped-up feel to it.
“There's a lot of detail in there. You wouldn't necessarily sit down and write that if you were going to through-compose something. Some of the musicians I hadn't even really spoken to properly, until after lockdown - we just made some stuff remotely, then I edited through it, they had no idea what I was going to come back with. So they've had a bit of a shock when they heard which parts I'd kept and which parts I’d thrown out.”
How much direction were you giving the performers in terms of what you were after?
“Initially, I tried to give people very detailed instructions, but I've come to accept that this doesn't really work. Working with different engineers and mixers over the last few years, you always go in with a reference list, and you go ‘yeah, we want it to sound like this!’ When you're in a band and you don’t really know anything about actually mixing records, you think that you’re going to reference an album and it's gonna sound exactly like that album, and you’re like - ‘why does it not sound like that?!’
“What I've realised now is, that way of trying to work makes you not like what you end up with. And it’ll just cause conflict in the process, and you don't really want that kind of conflict. What I’ve found is that you have to pick somebody, and then you have to trust that they know what they're doing. So if what comes back isn't right, and it's a million miles away from what you want, you've probably picked the wrong person.
“I've had situations where I've tried to sort of shoehorn somebody into an area that I want them to go into, and then it makes it worse, somehow, or it loses the original intention of the idea. So I try to avoid that, if I can. Trust people to do something good.”
Have you always worked in Ableton? What led you to choose it as a DAW?
“I flip all the time. I’m using LUNA at the moment, which I love. I’ve got my UAD plugins in there. But Ableton, for me, is the most natural DAW to construct things in. Similarly, I'm trying to move more into doing similar things on the MPC, like building in Session View on Ableton. It just works really well for my brain, the way that you can construct things very quickly.
“I work with Logic in the studio sometimes, because the studio that I mix in uses Logic. And there's things about Logic I really like, and sometimes I've used Pro Tools in the past, but predominantly, I find the workflow on Ableton really suits my brain. Not quite sure why that is. I remember when I was in college, I tried to use Logic for about a year and I just couldn't get it to do what I wanted it to. I was watching YouTube tutorials and asking people questions, and it just felt really boring. But I remember when I started using Ableton, I was like: ‘oh, this is really easy, this is fun, you know?’”
Could you talk us through maybe one or two pieces of equipment - synths, effects, instruments - that were fundamental to the making of the new project?
“It's hard to say. I watched this Shawn Everett thing recently, where he was talking about how they’ll often just pick up whatever gear happens to be around, and stick that in there. If they go into a studio, and there's a piece of equipment they don’t have, they'll just run shit through it, and record it, and then they've got it. A lot of the record was kind of like that. Some of the tunes might have 180 tracks on them, which is sort of insane, and very stressful to try and sort through later.
“My bandmate, who was making the record with us and another producer Lawrence Hart, bought a Deckard’s Dream quite early on in the process of making the record. We went to see Blade Runner 2049 in the cinema just before that. We were like, oh my God, you know - it's got to have that CS-80 thing, it's got to have that.
“There's lots of hardware, but I try to work as much as I can in the box. Especially now, just because I travel a lot, and I don't really have a fixed studio. Having stuff that I need to set up all the time slows down the process massively. Every now and then I buy a piece of gear and I'm like - yeah, I want that to be central to everything that I make now. And it is, for about a week. [laughs]”
“I’ve got a couple of hardware desktop synths that I use for live performance. I got the Waldorf Blofeld because I saw a thing with another producer where she said it was incredibly easy to make anything on it. And I was like, that’s brilliant. Then I started sitting down with it, and I was like: I don’t really want to make anything. I just want to make these five sounds. [laughs]”
Which plugins are you a fan of?
“I use the Arturia stuff a lot. As I said, I use the UAD stuff a lot. Then there’s some other weird third-party plugins which I’ve picked up over the years.”
Any oddball plugins that people may not know about, that you find particularly useful?
“Nothing that’s particularly unusual. I did a very short course in Max/MSP when I was at college. So every now and then I get in my head that I want to use these Max/MSP plugins and I'm gonna be Jonny Greenwood. [laughs] Again, it's too involved for the way that I make stuff. I'm predominantly a songwriter. I do want to get into the details, but if I spend too long on it. It's not a huge benefit to me.”
Could you run us through one or two influences - either musical or non-musical - behind the direction of the new record?
“It's hard to say because it changes all the time. You know, you hear a record, and you're like: ‘yeah, it should all sound like this, I’ve just heard this thing and we should do everything in this way!’ There's quite a bit of that on it. Honestly, a lot of my references are things that it doesn't sound anything like, which I’m sure is quite annoying.
“I was reading a really in-depth interview with the guy [Dave Fridmann] that produces Flaming Lips and Tame Impala. All of his records sound super crunchy and distorted. He doesn't really use the computer at all. It's all really analogue. He uses equipment that's either broken, or there's problems with the valves or the transistors or whatever, so that it doesn't sound right.
“I always think, how can I make my music sound more like this? I mean, nothing that I write sounds anything like that. But I’ll look at the equipment he's got and think, what would be my version of that? I can't get that 1950s compressor that was used for this radio recording and is now broken. So what can I do that sounds like that?
“I didn't train as an engineer or producer. I've always seen myself as more of a songwriter and less of an engineer, so I spend a lot of time watching other engineers talking about being engineers or producers. I saw a Chad Blake thing where he said, you can't recreate the sound of something else. So you just take the idea of the thing that you like, and you say, what is my approximation of that? So if you like something that sounds really blown out and distorted. You may not be able to get that sound, but can you get something that evokes that same feeling to you?”
Yeah, and that sound might filter through, in an oblique way, rather than a direct one.
“Exactly. I love a lot of music from the ‘80s. I'm not quite sure why that is. I think there's something about the songwriting. It's not about the synthesisers so much, even though I do love the sound of all that stuff. There's just something about the mood of a lot of music and film that was made in the ‘80s. And books that were popular in the 80s. That's just permeated into my consciousness somewhere.
“The very first record that I really got into was a Pet Shop Boys album. It was Discography (The Complete Singles Collection). It had all this stuff that had been really big in the ‘80s. The songwriting just really stuck with me. I don't know what it is, I wonder if it’s a certain mood, or like how some people are drawn to certain landscapes or something.
“That bleeds into a lot of the books that I liked. We've talked a lot about J. G. Ballard, and people like that. Everyone likes those books, so it's not particularly unusual. But I suppose the thing that I like about Ballard is actually not quite the same thing that everyone else seems to like about it. I like the humour of it. The doddery old man, the sense of failure in it, and this slightly weird sense of Britishness, which comes from not growing up in the UK. He grew up in Shanghai. There's something about the mood of that time that appeals to me more than just owning an emulator, or something.”
Typically when you think of an artist influenced by a specific era, they’re quite nitpicky about using the gear from that era. It’s interesting that you’re more of a software-based producer, while at the same time quite drawn to this period which lacked those tools.
“Yeah, it's weird. Maybe I'm slightly intimidated by the hardware. Maybe one day I’ll end up like Vince Clarke or Moby or something with a million analogue synths. But I don't want to be limited to that, I guess. I’m reading a book about Avalon at the moment, because I really like Bryan Ferry and the Roxy Music stuff from that time in particular. It's just a mood, you know. It goes beyond the synths that are used. I don't know, yeah. I'll probably get there one day. If I get a big paycheque, maybe I'll go and spunk it on a Jupiter or something.”
When it comes to choosing your sounds, and your synth patches, how much sound design do you get into?
“It changes, you know. There's some synthesisers that I just don't understand. Sometimes I wish I did, and sometimes I think it doesn't really matter. For whatever reason, I just don't have the interest or the attention span to really dive in and get to know something. Particularly something that has a lot of menu diving. I can’t get excited about that. The Blofeld’s a bit like that. We got a Juno-60 really, really cheap, early on when we were doing the band. It's so easy to do stuff with that, to make something straight away. I really appreciated that, so I use the Arturia version quite a lot now.
“I did a remix for an act called TVAM last year, and I had just got the latest Arturia collection. I opened up the Juno and I was just like: ‘presets, what we got?!’ And it just instantly sounded good. Within that, I then sort of play around with it. I really go in with a specific idea of what I want it to sound like. Sometimes I'll hear something on a record and go, ‘how do I get that?’ Something like the CS-80, or that Moog Modular plugin, I can spend hours just trying to follow the patching on those and not really understand how it works.
“I mean, I've got an MS-20 Mini at home, I barely understand how that’s put together, you know? Even though it’s written on it, what each thing is. It really depends. Sometimes, if I'm really into it, I'll sit there and really work on something until I get it sounding right. But most of the time I’ll approximate it and then I'll play with it later if it doesn't do what I want it to.
“Using soft synths, you're always looking to other plugins to do the thing that makes it sound big. The reason people love using hardware, a lot of the time, is because it just sounds good, straight away. You know, you plug it in, and it's got a sound. But with soft synths and software, often you're compensating for the fact that the initial sound isn't as good as you want it to be.
“So you're having to add a ton of saturation or width or whatever it is, to try and make it sound good. I'm sure for the purists out there, I’ve just massively minimised how difficult it is to make something sound good in the hardware world. But that seems to be my perception of it.”
What’s your live set-up looking like?
“I didn't want to just be a guy with a laptop. I don't know why, I know lots of people that do it now and there's no stigma around that. I'm trying to use the MPC, which is basically a laptop, with a small array of desktop synthesisers and a little mixer, and a few effects. I've been trying that out. If I was making instrumental music, and I had time to adjust everything manually while I'm singing, then that would be cool.
“But what tends to happen is I'd have to get someone else to do it now, because I can't sing and do it at the same time. Because if you’re a producer, and you're controlling the sound yourself, and you've got everything in front of you, your sole job is to try and make everything sound good, right? Then that is an incredible thing, and you can really ride the crowd, and you can get involved in that. But as soon as you throw singing into that, to multitask in that way is almost impossible.
“There's a producer I really like, Ela Minus, who has this setup based entirely around her MPC. There's no computer involved in any part of a process. I think that's really cool and laudable but how on earth she sings and plays at same time, I have no idea. As soon as you're trying to think about delivering words with any meaning, you're not thinking about the resonance peak on a synth.
“Trying to find a halfway house there is very tricky. Also, because I used a lot of acoustic instruments on the album, part of me is like, is it a band? Are you listening to a band? You know, is that what you're hearing? As I said, I never wanted to just use the computer, and I never wanted to just be with a backing track, right? But I don't think I ever want to use live drums.
“Again, I can't be held to that. I'm sure if anyone reads this in 10 years, and I'm rocking out John Bonham-style, they'll hold me to this. But drums add something to the mix which is just too unpredictable in a venue. So those are my three starting points, and everything else has to work backwards from there. That’s how I'm trying to approach it. But honestly, I did a DJ gig the other day, and I just turned up with a memory stick and I was like: 'this is amazing.'”